THE BEGINNER'S PAGE
Richard Mansfield, Senior Editor
People are putting their home computers to all kinds of uses. Last month – to get an overview – we separated personal computing programs into fifteen broad types: 1. Graphics, 2. Music, 3. Word Processing, 4. Education, 5. Home Applications, 6. Accounting, 7. Games, 8. Financial Simulation, 9. Data Base Management, 10. Languages, 11. Operating Systems, 12. Disk Operating Systems, 13. Utilities, 14. Telecommunications, and 15. Artificial Intelligence. We reviewed the first three, so now let's take a look at the second group.
Although fears have been expressed that Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) could lead to a brave new world of cold, inhuman, assembly line schooling – just the opposite seems to be taking place. How the computer teaches is entirely dependent on how it's programmed to teach. A CAI program can be sarcastic, or teach too slowly or too quickly, or offer endless, boring drills. But this is not something inherent in computerized teaching; bad teachers have been doing all these things for centuries.
The opportunities for personalized, interactive, effectively paced CAI are just beginning to be explored. It wasn't long ago that we heard a good deal about attempts at new, unstructured educational styles. "Learning can be fun" was the slogan, but the results of these experiments were, to put it mildly, mixed. A part of an entire generation failed to learn fundamental spelling, arithmetic, and even reading skills.
CAI might well be the answer. After all, learning should be exciting and challenging. When combined with sound and animation, many learning programs are indistinguishable from games. Nearly every month, COMPUTE! publishes a CAI game or program. "Crosswords," in this issue, will construct crossword puzzles which can build vocabulary or teach spelling. Last month, there was "Math Fun." And as games themselves become more sophisticated, the "hidden" lessons within them will become more effective. Much remains to be discovered about CAI technique, but it seems quite possible that, via computers, math (and all the other subjects) can become fun for the average student.
This is a catch-all category. Growing out of hobbies or special needs, these programs perform a personal service such as keeping track of the birds a birdwatcher sees or the stamps a collector buys. Sometimes, home applications are just scaled-down versions of business programs. For example, the professional advertiser's mailing list program becomes, in the home, a personal Christmas/ birthday card manager. It will not only address the envelopes; it can remind you when to mail the cards. Other examples include personal inventory programs (record, book, coin collections, etc.) or personal analysis (biorhythms, nutritional planning, scheduling, computerized bowling league scorekeeping, and so forth).
Big business and government have had years to computerize themselves. Some estimates suggest that computers do as much as 80 percent of the work in areas such as national defense. Home computerization is in its infancy, but the future seems to promise increasing use of "intelligent" appliances, information services, even robot vacuum cleaners. To all of us who try, with more or less difficulty, to keep our home and personal affairs in order, the offer of smart-machine domestic services can only be viewed as a major blessing.
Descending Luxury: Accountants For Everyone
Personal budgeting, retirement planning, investment analysis, and tax preparation are among the currently popular applications of computers in home accounting. Most of us don't face financial decisions of sufficient complexity to require the services of a human accountant. On the other hand, most of us could use some help with our money management. Getting this help from our home computer is yet another example of what could be called descending luxury.
To define that idea, let's look at another example: movies. When I was in college, we'd hear about the movie that the President or a Hollywood star had shown guests the night before. It seemed an extraordinary luxury to be able to watch a movie in your own house. Indeed, such freedom was only available to the very wealthy. Now home video equipment is making home theaters increasingly available to everyone. In a few years, the technology of high resolution, large-screen TV should be affordable everywhere. Another luxury has descended.